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Exploring Japan - Kumamoto Prefecture

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

In Japan, teachers work through summer. Many people who work with JET often take time off to travel Japan at this time. However, because I had just taken some time off in June to go to America, I worked through the summer with the other teachers. During this time, I helped students prep for the English Speech Contest. There is an annual English Speech Contest here in Japan. First, students compete locally (in the city), if they place in the top three they compete at the prefectural level, and then from there, I believe they go on to nationals. Do not quote me on that, none of my students made it that far. This past summer, I worked with ten students at the four schools I work at. I kept my schedule booked so that I could visit multiple schools a day: one in the morning and another in the afternoon. It was fun, but quite busy. It was the first time that I really got to spend extended periods of one on one time with some of my students. The setting also seemed overall more calm because it was summer. I would like to mention that students *do* have summers off (summer break is about a month for Japanese students). However, students that participate in club activities such as sports and band still have to go to school to practice during the week. So while they do get a break from the academics, many students are still on campus during the summer holiday.

In recent years, my city has offered all city employees three consecutive days off in the summer. I chose to take my three days off at the end of August. I took a Friday, Monday, and Tuesday off so that I could also enjoy a Saturday and Sunday during my break. With this time I visited three more prefectures in Kyushu: Kumamoto, Saga, and Oita. The easiest way to get around in Kyushu is by car. So really, this was my first major solo road-trip in Japan!

My summer trip started in Kumamoto. Kumamoto is the most populated prefecture in central Kyushu. It is known for it's castle, Suizenji Park (which is in the top three most famous parks in Japan, I unfortunately didn't visit this trip), and Mount Aso.

Somewhere in Northern Kumamoto

Please enjoy this music video about Mount Aso by my favorite youtuber: Abroad in Japan. The creator of Abroad in Japan, Chris Broad, got me through the pandemic (which as a friendly reminder is still ongoing...) and my multiple postponements to Japan with his realistic take on life in Japan with a side of sarcasm and comedic relief.

When I arrived in Kumamoto City Thursday night, I was quite overwhelmed. I think of Kyushu as being rural, so I rarely have to deal with traffic. Even the most populated city in my prefecture, Miyazaki City, is light on traffic. However, Kumamoto is like a city, city, and I hit downtown right at commute time. It really put my new Japanese license to the test.

In Kumamoto I stayed in a Toyoko Inn which is a budget friendly hotel chain in Japan. A friend back home (you know who you are, shout out to you if you are reading this!) loves Toyoko Inns because free breakfast is included with your stay. However, because of the coronavirus, at the moment they only provide bentos to go. Nevertheless it was still good, and it is always nice to get a free meal while traveling. So, if you ever travel to Japan on a low budget and you don't want to stay in some sort of capsule hotel or hostel, check out Toyoko Inn. I will say, that the beds are pretty stiff, but that is very common in Japanese hotels.

My hotel was located right around the corner from a wine shop. The owner of the shop was a sommelier! And to answer your next question, no, I didn't go in. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on wine, but also, I was mostly nervous to go in because I don't speak Japanese. There are probably many things that I miss out on in Japan since I don't speak Japanese and I don't like to burden others with the language barrier. Wine tasting is definitely one of those things that you need to be able to hold a conversation. However, because they are a sommelier, they probably do know how to speak English since sommeliers travel. I just thought it was so cool to find a sommelier down here in Kyushu, and maybe I can go back someday with a Japanese speaker.

Nabegataki Falls Picture Taken with my iPhone 12 mini

The next morning I woke up early to drive to northern Kumamoto where Mount Aso is. Before that, I drove to Nabegataki Falls which is about the furthest north you can go in Kumamoto. When you are driving from the city to Nabegataki Falls, you actually pass through Oita Prefecture because of how the borders are drawn. I was super confused when I saw signs that were welcoming me to Oita and I thought I was completely lost, but I wasn't. I made it to the waterfall still pretty early despite the almost two hour drive. Nabegataki is special because there is enough space for you to walk behind it. But, it was packed! So I couldn't get a great picture without people and I wasn't able to fully appreciate the environment with everyone around. It was still pretty cool though, and now I can check "walking behind a waterfall" off of my bucket list.

Another iPhone picture of a bear spotted outside the entrance of the falls.

Then I headed to Mount Aso. Mount Aso is Japan's largest active volcano, as well as one of the largest active volcano's in the world. In October 2021, right after the Too Much Volcano music video was created, Mount Aso had a big eruption with ash reaching 3.5 km in the air. There were no casualties and you can view several YouTube videos to watch as climbers and onlookers leave the scene of the eruption.

Mount Aso Hiding Behind the Clouds

I, on the other hand, was not greeted with that much excitement. In fact by the time I parked and walked out onto the volcano, I couldn't even see the formation because it was hidden in very dense fog. This was by far the biggest disappoint I faced on my trip, and I am hoping to go back sometime soon (maybe even sometime this fall?), because I actually want to see it for myself. Here is my lovely view after I was wishful thinking and climbed a very steep hill -.-

By the time I got back to Kumamoto City, it was already evening. I ended up getting Chinese food for dinner: I ordered some chanpon (that wasn't nearly as good as the chanpon in Nagasaki) and gyoza.

The next day I visited Kumamoto Castle before heading to Saga Prefecture. Kumamoto Castle is one of the most popular castles in Japan. It was originally constructed by Kato Kiyomasa in 1607. However, in post World War II, there was a movement across Japan to reconstruct important historical buildings. So, the main tower that is seen today was reconstructed in 1960 with steel reinforced-concrete.

More recently, in April 2016, Kumamoto was hit with a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed 50 and injured 3,129 people. Many parts of the city were damaged from the earthquake, including Kumamoto Castle. So, the castle underwent more reconstruction. The main tower opened to the public again in June of 2021, a little over 5 years from when the disaster first hit (part of the delay to reopen was due to the coronavirus). When I visited, August 2022, parts of the castle was still closed off to the public. Including Honmaru Goten hall, an area that is formal with artistic sliding doors and tells the sad story of Wang Zhaojun an ancient princess from China. Unfortunately I don't know much more than that considering I couldn't enter the area.

Damage from the 2016 Earthquake

I purchased a museum/castle ticket and started in the museum. This is where I learned (or attempted to learn) the history about the castle. From there, you walk across the street, follow a bunch of paths, and take quite a few stairs. Even though I went in the morning, actually making it to the castle was not an easy task because of the terrible humidity. As you can imagine, I was sweaty and dehydrated.

On the way to the main tower, you pass what is called "The Dark Passage". The Dark Passage is an underground passageway lined with stones that lead to the original entrance. This was built as a defense mechanism and was unique for its time because not a lot of underground structures in Japan existed previously. And then, FINALLY, you reach the main tower. Where you are met with some big fans and water misters.

The main tower is placed on top of a stone structure and contains six floors. You can go all the way to the top floor to see a 360° view of the city and, on clear days, can see Mount Aso.

After exploring the castle I walked around the shrine and the souvenir shops. Surprisingly, I didn't buy ice cream (as mentioned in my previous blog entry about Kagoshima, cold snacks were a godsend during the summer months), but I did buy a small Kumamon. Kumamon is the mascot of Kumamoto. It is a bear that was introduced in 2010 and has quickly become "Japan's most popular bear". If I haven't already mentioned, each prefecture has their own mascot. In addition to the prefectural mascots, it's quite common for cities to have their own mascot as well. However, Kumamon is probably the most popular mascot in all of Kyushu.

Statue of Kumamon

After visiting Kumamoto castle, it was already time to head to the second prefecture on my trip: Saga. I am excited to briefly share about my trip to Saga in my next blog entry which will hopefully be posted soon!


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